Running Free at the Rotary Play Hill

The Treehouse Tower and Net Den challenge youngsters to climb and explore.

Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Childhood isn’t what it used to be. Fargo-Moorhead’s five Rotary clubs want to change that.
On Thursday, June 20, representatives of Moorhead Rotary and Fargo’s four Rotary organizations open the gates to the area’s newest arena for active fun. The Rotary Natural Play Hill aims to bring back the sense of free-form fun and imagination that older generations remember from their own childhood – a picturesque area along the Red River where kids – and their imaginations – can run reasonably wild.
The ribbon-cutting at 10 that morning will introduce families to a new but age-old opportunity to run, climb, ride, scramble, jump and work up a sweat. Created from timber, boulders and other ingredients from nature’s cupboard, the 1.6 acre area offers something that’s rare in the lives of youngsters growing up in a sedentary, structured world. Instead of spending hours glued to digital screens or taking part in adult-led activities, the new park has been created to give them a hefty helping of fresh-air play time – proven to benefit both their bodies and their minds.
“The days when Mom told you to go out and play until dark are long gone,” says Heather Ranck, who chairs the group that has shepherded the natural playground from an offbeat notion to healthy reality. “Free time now usually means they’re either sedentary or in some highly structured, adult-led activity. Yet research suggests they need twice as much unstructured play. It’s critical for their cognitive, social and emotional development.” Some experts now call the health benefits of hours spent playing outdoors “Vitamin N” for “nature.”
Heather brought the idea to the FM Rotary Foundation six years ago. The charitable group, then 12 years old, had already completed other child-oriented projects across the community, including Lindenwood Park’s Inclusive Playground and the Miracle Field at Southside Regional Park in south Moorhead. They had built a reading room at Gig’s Playhouse, a program for autistic kids, completed the TNT Kids Fitness Sensory Gym, and launched Project English to help the area’s new Americans master the language.
“The board approved the idea. Then the president, Jean Hannibal, pointed to me and said, ‘You’re in charge,’” she remembers. “We had a lot of research to do, and I’d never done fund-raising before. It’s been quite a learning experience.”
First order of business: Find a location. Moorhead’s Riverfront Park just north of downtown fit the bill. Located between First Avenue North and the Red River, it had a myriad of assets: A central, easily accessible location. A beautiful, forested setting. Close access to Moorhead’s Riverfront Trail … and, best of all, a hill. “Now, that’s hard to find here,” Heather laughs.
She and the rest of the foundation board first turned to their clubs to raise the money they needed. Their original goal was $600,000 to create the design developed by Confluence, a local landscaping firm, and site work by East Construction. By the time ground was broken in 2023, however, that total had more than doubled due to costs inflated in the aftermath of COVID. The final price tag: $1.27 million.
All but 5% of that amount has already been received or pledged. Heather and her committee are still looking to raise the final $60,000. More information and a donation link can be found at
Much of the funding has come from the local Rotarians. “Fargo-Moorhead is unusual, both in the number of clubs and our success in working together,” she points out. With a total of more than 200 members, the five units achieved 100% participation in supporting the project. Along with their clubs, 65% of individual members made personal gifts – a good share of the 300 personal gifts the project has received. “They range from $20 to $1,000 or more,” she says.
But Rotarian were far from the only supporters who shared the vision. Four organizations made donations of more than $50,000, including the F-M Convention and Visitors Bureau, the F-M Area Foundation, the Sanford Foundation and the Scheels Foundation.
Other service clubs, too, added their support. The F-M Stomacher Club donated $25,000. Fargo Optimists contributed $6,000, and the Horace Lions Club, $5,000.
Heather cites praise on the city of Moorhead and the Department of Parks and Recreation for the outstanding partnership they crafted together. “They’ve been absolutely phenomenal. When we’ve run into bumps in the road, we’ve worked out solutions at a team,” she says. At Monday’s city council meeting, the Rotary Foundation formally turned over ownership of the Play Hill to the city department, which will manage and maintain the park from this point forward.
The Play Hill has plenty to pique youngsters’ interest and fire up their creativity. There’s the 20-foot-tall Tree house Tower and log tower built of timbers hand-selected and harvested in the North Woods. There’s a bike park with a twisty, turning Sidewinder route through the Rock Patch. A teeter totter built of natural timber has its ups and downs. Boulders form a rocky obstacle course. Kids can choose the Zip Line, the Net Den, the Web Climber, the Log Spiral and the Spiral Stumps.
Nor is the fun limited to sunnier seasons. “From the beginning, we wanted to create a four-season facility,” Heather says. That hill, of course – perfect for sledding. The park also adjoins Moorhead’s riverside trail system, already popular for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Free, creative play isn’t just for children, either. “We hope adults will play there, too. They get even less Vitamin N than their kids. If we can tempt them to be more active outdoors, that will be a bonus,” she notes.
Heather, too, emphasizes not only the benefits of the park they’ve built, but the pluses of membership in civic-minded service organizations. “I can’t say enough about the power and credibility of Rotary and other service clubs,” she says. “Joining any of them is a way to plug into the community and join together for the good of the community.
“Some people say that service clubs are on the wane. I really hope that’s not true. Find a club that fits your interests. Spread your wings and meet new community-minded people.
“Service clubs are a great way to make new, favorable connections in your life.”

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